Although I knew of the title and the stars, I had zero The Big Valley experience. The ABC, big-budget western featuring megawatt star Barbara Stanwyck just wasn't a series that was on my radar when I was a kid, during its initial syndication run. Telling the story of the wealthy, powerful Barkley family in California's San Joaquin Valley during the 1870s, The Big Valley featured Stanwyck as Victoria Barkley, the strong-willed, wise matriarch of a family of three sons and one daughter, and their efforts to stay a tight-knit family in the wild and woolly West. Never a Top Thirty hit in the Nielsen's (it only lasted four years on ABC), I did find out something curious about the show after watching it with my wife; apparently, women love The Big Valley. A favorite of hers and her girlfriends when she was young, a quick look on the internet also brought up numerous valentines to the show, and almost all of them from female viewers - certainly something unusual for a TV western. When I asked her to be specific as to why she liked the show, she succinctly summed it up in three words: good looking men.
Looking at The Big Valley -- Season Two: Volume One (more about that season split later) from that angle, I began to see her point. The Big Valley does appear to be aimed at, if not exclusively then at least jointly, at a female as well as male audience - a big departure for network TV westerns of the time. The three male leads, Richard Long, Peter Breck, and Lee Majors are exceedingly attractive performers, as well as being quite good, personable actors. But the female appeal of The Big Valley goes beyond just the handsome casting; the male characters in The Big Valley fulfill three popular male fictional fantasy figures for women, creating quite an interesting dynamic on the show.
Richard Long (Nanny and the Professor) plays Jarrod Barkley, the oldest son and de facto father figure on the show. Long's Jarrod is the perfect embodiment of the smooth, handsome, cultured, educated adult male. Trained as a lawyer, and frequently seen as the mediator in not only the family's business but also in outside ventures, Jarrod offers the calm, romantic aspect of maleness that used to be the foremost Hollywood representation of the ideal man. On the opposite side of the coin, we have Breck's Nick Barkley, the dark, mysterious, hot-tempered brother who always wears leather gloves and a black hat. With slick-backed, jet-black hair, and a contemptuous sneer perpetually playing at his mouth, Nick is the quintessential "bad boy" that women love to hate - and hate to love (take that, Dr. Phil!). And finally, we have the hunky, sweet-natured, perpetually wounded Heath Barkley (Lee Majors). Having the distinction of being the illegitimate son of Victoria's late husband, Tom, only creates more nurturing feelings from the female audience towards Heath. The fact that he's young, sensitive, gentle, and awfully good looking, doesn't exactly hurt his image as the young, troubled hero of the show, either. With these three male archetypes on display, there's something for every woman who watches The Big Valley.
Furthering the female appeal of the show is the fact that it's essentially a matriarchal show. Stanwyck's Victoria Barkley is the boss here; her boys defer to her in all areas of running their enormous ranch, as well as heeding her advice on more personal matters. While Stanwyck doesn't factor in for as much screen time as the male leads, her presence is felt throughout each episode (the true measure of a star), and it's clear that, at least on this particular ranch, one woman rules the roost. Linda Evans (Dynasty), playing Victoria's daughter Audra, has the least to do in the series (or at least in this half-season), but that in no way affects her role as audience proxy on the show. If anything, it enhances it. Without a clearly defined, strong character that may clash with diverse viewers, beautiful Audra is the perfect vehicle for women in the audience to project themselves into the series.
Ignoring the psychology of the show if you wish, and if you can get past the constant comments from your spouse when something pretty in pants walks by, The Big Valley is an energetically paced, tightly-written western drama that draws on classically structured scripts and a comparatively big budget for this kind of series. Terrific character actors who populated the TV screens in the 1950s and 1960s show up here to good effect, including Buddy Hackett, Bruce Dern, Nehemiah Persoff, John Hoyt, Bert Freed, James Gregory, Malachi Throne, Joseph Campanella, Philip Bourneuf, William Mims, Strother Martin, James Whitmore, Jr., Julie Adams, Sherwood Price, Bill Quinn, Bradford Dillman, Sheree North, Anne Seymour, Warren Oates, Norma Crane, Lamont Johnson, Colleen Dewhurst, Ross Hagen, Stephen McNally, and Royal Dano. And there are still plenty of fisticuffs and pistol action if all that talk above made you a little nervous. Having never seen the show, I wasn't expecting much, quite honestly, but I was hooked right from the start. The Big Valley is a quality dramatic series from the waning days of the network western, and it plays as well today as it did over forty years ago.
Here are the 15, one hour episodes of The Big Valley -- Season Two: Volume One:
DISC ONE: SIDE A
When a con man claims that he, not Tom Barkley, is Heath's real father, Heath becomes determined to discover the truth.
Legend of a General (Part I)
Heath is jailed and held prisoner in Mexico in exchange for a Mexican general seeking refuge at the Barkley ranch.
Legend of a General (Part II)
The Barkleys refuse to give up General Ruiz as they embark on a bold plan to save Heath.
Audra's relationship with a young man incurs the heated jealousy of his stepmother, who harbors strong feelings for him.
DISC ONE: SIDE B
Victoria races to stop a young Paiute Indian, contagious with measles, from returning to and infecting his tribe.
Jarrod defends a Basque sheepherder accused of murdering a cattleman.
DISC TWO: SIDE A
A dishonest gubernatorial candidate comes to Stockton, spreading lies about the Barkleys and plotting murder.
The Velvet Trap
Nick falls for a woman with a hidden secret and an ulterior motive.
The Man from Nowhere
While away from the ranch to help mediate a land dispute, Jarrod is injured and rendered amnesic.
DISC TWO: SIDE B
The Great Safe Robbery
Three inept thieves trying to crack a railroad station safe hold Audra and Victoria hostage.
The Iron Box
Nick and Heath are wrongfully arrested by a crooked sheriff and sent to a road-gang prison under the watchful eye of a warden with an evil plan.
DISC THREE: SIDE A
Last Stage to Salt Flats
Stage robbers leave Victoria, Jarrod, and Audra high and dry -- stranded in the middle of the desert with no water and little hope.
A Day of Terror
Along with a Bible study class, Audra and Victoria are held captive in a church by a matronly outlaw and her dangerous brood.
DISC THREE: SIDE B
Hide the Children
Nick becomes smitten with the bride-to-be and learns a lesson about intolerance when he escorts a gypsy dowery wagon to a wedding.
Day of the Comet
Audra falls for an intriguing stranger who cannot outrun his past.
The full frame, 1.33:1 video image for The Big Valley -- Season Two: Volume One is fairly good, although some restoration to the original elements would have been nice. Some of the episodes show signs of color fading, and scratches and dirt do occasionally appear. However, what really annoys me is the splitting up of the season into two volumes. If you purchase The Big Valley -- Season Two: Volume One, be advised: you are not getting the entire 1966-1967 season of episodes in this package. Only the first 15 episodes are included here. Why 20th Century Fox would do this, I don't know, but I don't like it. We've had enough TV series on DVD now to be comfortable with the idea of buying, at the very least, whole seasons of a series at a time. Splitting the season into two separate packages, usually months apart in release, makes absolutely no sense. As well, as I've stated before in other reviews, I can't stand flipper discs. I know it's necessary for space considerations, but if that's the case here, then surely the entire season could have been included in one box set.
There are two Dolby Digital mono soundtracks available on The Big Valley -- Season Two: Volume One: one in English, and one in Spanish. They're entirely adequate to represent the original TV presentation. As well, there are optional English and Spanish subtitles available, too.
There are no extras for The Big Valley -- Season Two: Volume One.
Having never seen The Big Valley, I was pleasantly surprised by how well it was written and produced. The excellent actors, aided by some of the best supporting players in the business, work well with the show's archetypal characterizations, and the dramatics are professionally crafted. Intended as much for women as men, The Big Valley -- Season Two: Volume One is a unique network TV western that catered to a varied audience - an audience that will no doubt enjoy it today, too. I recommend The Big Valley -- Season Two: Volume One.
Paul Mavis is an internationally published film and television historian, a member of the Online Film Critics Society, and the author of The Espionage Filmography.